For Apple TV+ drama The Morning Show, Angus Wall and Hazel Baird designed a main title sequence that was at once visually abstract and thematically rich, speaking to the various challenging facets of life in the high-pressure world of morning news.
Created by Jay Carson and Kerry Ehrin, the series centers on a popular breakfast news program broadcast out of New York, which is rocked to its core when one of its longtime anchors is fired, due to accusations of sexual misconduct.
Set to Benjamin Clementine’s “Nemesis,” the show’s title sequence centers on spheres of different colors and sizes, interacting in a series of playful vignettes. For Wall and Baird, two of the creative directors behind Elastic—a design studio launched in 2008, which this year claimed four Emmy nominations out of seven for Outstanding Main Title Design—the challenge of The Morning Show was to make sure that the spheres spoke clearly to issues greater than themselves, such as ego and power dynamics, while allowing for interpretation.
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At its core, Wall says, the sequence “was basically just using dots as a metaphor for people and the struggle to become who you are, to individuate and to find your place. The show, in many ways, is about that, and about how messy those interactions are.”
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with The Morning Show? What was it that excited you about working on this series?
ANGUS WALL: We’ve known [executive producer] Michael Ellenberg since he was at Scott Free. He’s a friend, and he called us pretty early on in the process of them making the show. It was exciting to be part of the first round of shows that Apple was making. There was something very tantalizing about that. It was an incredible production, an incredible cast and director, and the narratives were really interesting, so the title sequence is really a reflection of all those things, specifically in terms of having characters [that] broke away from what you thought they were going to do, or what you thought they were going to be.
The idea was to present something that looked really formatted, and then play with the structure of that, so that if it started with a grid, those characters very quickly broke out of that grid and individuated, and started running into the other characters in a way that was really interesting, and took us down a narrative that we really hadn’t seen before. The idea came out of our conversations with the showrunners and producers, and maybe the director about what the driving forces behind the creation of the show were, and the things that influenced them—and in a weird way, where we ended up seemed like a natural reflection of those conversations.
HAZEL BAIRD: Yeah. Because I think at the beginning, they were saying it was going on a slightly different direction. Then, when the whole #MeToo thing happened, it did change it, and they wanted it very sort of feminist-led. It was all about women in the workplace and how tough it is, but I think the circles and how abstract the title is helped also, because it didn’t give away anything. It’s quite ambiguous: You could assign any character to any of the scenarios in there. I think that was important, and they didn’t want it to be a spoon-fed feminism kind of thing. They wanted to make it just abstract enough to be quite subtle with trying to tell stories from different points of view.
DEADLINE: Reportedly, you considered multiple creative directions for the title sequence early on. What other options did you consider?
BAIRD: At first, you brainstorm some ideas, and we went down several dull routes, and also a route that was very similar to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. [Apple] liked all that, but they just felt it was too in your face. I think initially, when Angus mentioned the circles idea and the story behind it, I instantly understood what it was going to look like, so that happened actually pretty quickly. It was only a couple of days, and then I showed Angus some frames and he loved it. And then, when we pitched it to them, it just really stood out. I think we pitched five concepts, but they just kind of were blown away at the color and the design, to see the concept for it was really strong.
DEADLINE: Were there major influences behind your design approach?
BAIRD: There’s a big Paul Rand influence, and [obviously], Saul Bass. Because my background is graphic design, I love all that simple stuff. It’s just easy for me to go down that color and design route. I find it very comfortable.
WALL: It was meant to harken back to that sense of design, and then break it—to go to this mid-century idea of a very structured world and then update it, or sort of drag that forward into now, where things are less structured. People are allowed to be much more themselves and not fit into a box, necessarily, or try to fit into a box, which no one actually can.
DEADLINE: You could have taken the decision to go abstract in a lot of different directions. How did you arrive at your primary shape for the sequence, and a color scheme that suited it?
BAIRD: I think circles are way easier to animate, to be honest, and they can tell a story a lot easier than a square or triangle. So naturally, it was just circles, and the color was the same sort of thing. I looked at Paul Rand’s work, and at Saul Bass’s work, and the colors that they chose, and some other references, as well. I knew it had to be bright and colorful, and we didn’t want it to be really, really 3D or anything like that. Some of the movements are, but it’s got that aesthetic where it looks flat, but it’s not really. It was all very quick, and it felt natural working on it.
DEADLINE: The sequence uses visual qualities like color, movement, directionality and scale to tell a series of quick stories in abstract fashion. Could you give a couple of examples of specific vignettes to illuminate the thinking behind your work?
BAIRD: There’s one where the ball comes up in a large shadow, and sort of pops up, and you’ve got this little, tiny yellow one. It was supposed to be like this horrible, domineering figure—like, “I’m going to manipulate you and domineer you”—and then all of a sudden, the sphere just falls into a hole, into a pile of loads of other spheres that are the same size and color as that sphere. Like, “Yeah, well, you’re just the same as everyone else. You can intimidate people if you like, but at the end of the day, we’re all kind of the same.” So, that’s kind of where that came from. But I know that people on the web have got different ideas of what that means, which is what we wanted, as well.
[Another] one was when Steve Carell’s name comes up, and the sphere gets punched, and as it gets punched, it gets smaller and smaller, and that one had two meanings of deflation. Like, you’re not what you were anymore, and now you’re this small, tiny person. Or it can mean just that sinking feeling, [when] you’re about to be completely destroyed and your life goes out. So, it’s almost as if you’re having this deflation of, “I’m no longer this huge, charismatic, ego-driven person. I’m now reduced to something that I didn’t expect.” People also thought the spheres represented people shouting at someone and things like that, so I mean, people came up with different ideas.
WALL: All of the vignettes were designed to describe a very specific human interaction, and also allow for lots of interpretation. I think one of our biggest concerns was whether people would actually read the animations as what they were intended for, which is people interacting. You know, ego plays a big part in a lot of the little spheres’ actions—their insecurities and overcompensations—and if you really watch the sequence with these things in mind, you start to see some subtleties, in terms of the behavior of the different spheres.
DEADLINE: What were your biggest challenges in bringing the sequence to fruition?
BAIRD: The pitch process of going back and forth was quite long. I think we started in February 2019 and finished the animation the end of July, beginning of August. That was everything from seeing the clients the very first time, [to] handing the final delivery. I think the challenges were just to make sure that every scenario fitted, and one of the ideas, we did change. I think Apple wanted the black sphere to be the hero, and to actually go through the sequence, so you were following one sphere’s journey. So, we did that, and that worked really well.
But I think the biggest challenge, for me, was trying to do all these different design frames and ideas, and then, what order were they going to go in? How were they going to animate into each other? That was really difficult, but it was really great, at the same time.
WALL: I think it was also challenging because the animation style and the content actually became simpler and simpler as the process moved forward, but at the beginning, we were looking at a lot of different and actually disparate approaches to the idea. Its difficulty was, in a way, winnowing down to what the real language of the sequence was going to be. There are a lot of different variations on the animation approach. Some were really cool, but were maybe a little bit too complex, and I think one of the overriding concerns was just to make sure that the basic idea was clear. So, I think we ended up going with a lot of more elegant, and also simple, animated beats, rather than the more complicated thing. It’s very easy to get more complicated, and then kind of lose the plot of the overall thing.
DEADLINE: Elastic dominated this year in the category of Main Title Design, with additional nods for Watchmen, Carnival Row and The Politician. What did it mean to you to see that happen?
WALL: I’m super proud of the company. I’m really proud of all of the designers, and all the people who work on the sequences. I mean, it’s pretty wild. It’s really exciting to see the company grow, but more importantly, to see all the people inside the company grow. There’s just nothing more gratifying or satisfying than witnessing that, quite honestly.
I think it’s cool that there are so many different kinds of sequences that we got nominated for, to see the sort of range. There are so many female leads in our company, and I think that is really exciting, as well. It was pretty surprising that four out of the seven came from our studio, but I think it’s been pretty exciting for everybody.
DEADLINE: Elastic is one of a number of entertainment companies that all work interdependently, and soon, you’ll be rebranding as a collective. What can you tell us about that?
WALL: A lot of people have worked with one company, and they’re not aware that there’s a whole campus or fleet of different companies under one roof that work interdependently. So this fall, all the different companies are keeping their identity, but we’re putting an umbrella over all of them together called MakeMake, which harkens back to the studios from the ’40s and ’50s, where you had craftspeople coming in and doing all kinds of different things. There’s an energy that comes from that, where you have people doing all sorts of different disciplines under one roof. As an artisan, it can be really fulfilling and exciting.
In a lot of ways, we’re sort of a 28-year-old start-up, because there was never an intent to do this, but we kind of have the ability to make just about anything, which is really exciting, and do it on a really, really high level.
For a look at the Emmy-contending main title sequence of The Morning Show, click on the video below.
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